By Randy Jackson
I once won a dessert contest with chocolate-covered cheesecake pierogies. This was a recipe of my own invention that combined influences from Poland (pierogies), Greece (cheesecake), and Mexico (chocolate). It’s the chocolate, I think, that put me over the top. That rich, dark brown, sweet substance, universally beloved, has been around for about four thousand years, but only in its current pierogi-coating form for about 150 years. For most of its history, chocolate was a beverage, served cold, and that is how it was first introduced to Europeans when it was carried back from Mexico at the time of the Spanish Conquest.
Bernal Díaz, who accompanied Cortés in the conquest of Mexico, wrote of a visit to Moctezuma:
From time to time they served him, in cups of pure gold, a certain drink made from cacao. It was said that it gave one power over women, but this I never saw. I did see them bring in more than fifty large pitchers of cacao with froth in it, and he drank some of it, the women serving with great reverence.
The reverence the Aztec held for their cacao (chocolate) drink wasn’t unique to their civilization. Like so much of the Aztec culture, it was something they absorbed from earlier, predecessor civilizations. It was the Maya who elevated the drink into their mythological structure. Some surviving Mayan hieroglyphics report of an annual gathering to give thanks to Ek Chuah, the god of cacao.
This history shouldn’t surprise anyone. Cacao is a natural source of caffeine, and if it were not for our science-sterilized view of the cosmos, we too would have a caffeine god. If Moctezuma were alive today, he’d have a Starbucks card. He’d likely order a latte. I say this because of the length Aztecs would go to create foam in the cacao drink they called xocoatl. An early drawing shows an Aztec woman pouring the cacao drink from above shoulder height into a receptacle. This causes the substance to foam. The foam holds the richest flavor when the bubbles burst in the mouth.
Of course, the xocoatl that Moctezuma and the Aztec elites were served wasn’t the same quality of cacao drink available to soldiers and regular folk. Xocoatl for the elites was made of pure cacao and flavored with highly valued ground and roasted plants and spices. Depending on the flavoring additives, the different xocoatl mixtures had different colors as well.
For the common Aztecs, xocoatl was more diluted and mixed with ground maize (corn). This is similar to a drink called chilate, found today in Oaxaca and elsewhere, including throughout Latin America (recipes vary). Even this lower quality xocoatl was still highly revered by the Aztecs, and was only served on special occasions such as births, feasts, weddings and funerals (which sometimes involved mixing human blood into the drink). Perhaps adding to the esteem in which Aztecs held xocoatl was the knowledge that they were drinking money. Cacao seeds (which required fermentation, roasting, and crushing to make chocolate) were widely used as currency.
It was the earlier Mayan civilization which first began using cacao seeds as currency. In many ways cacao seeds were an ideal currency – light, portable, with the underlying value that it made something of value – chocolate. The use of this currency was a significant contributor to the flourishing of Mayan civilization. Having a currency created a new social class – a merchant class. The use of cacao currency facilitated trade and allowed a wider distribution of wealth beyond the rulers and elites.
The Aztecs also used cacao seeds as currency. The conquering Spanish quickly adopted the cacao seed as currency as well. They used it to set market prices, and in 1555 established an exchange rate between cacao seeds and the Spanish currency, the real. The cacao bean continued to be used as currency as late as 1850, although by then only for small change.
At the same time the cacao bean served as currency, it was also a consumable commodity in both Mesoamerica and Europe. The Jesuits introduced the drink to the Spanish court where it became popular, despite its being an acquired taste. For a time, the drink was seasoned with chilies and spices as the Aztecs had prepared it. This recipe persisted in Spain for about 100 years, but in time, by adding sugar, dropping the spices, and serving it hot, chocolate became a highly popular drink throughout Europe, spreading from the elite classes to the masses.
Chocolate houses flourished throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. These were largely places where the wealthier classes could socialize, to “let their hair down,” you could say, and participate in activities like gambling. Chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac continued from the Aztecs, and that association only added to its popularity. As time went on, the reputation of chocolate houses declined, and they were perceived as places of debauchery.
The industrial revolution brought important changes to chocolate. A cacao press, invented in the Netherlands, separated out the cacao butter, leaving a dry powder, which is cocoa as we know it today. Then cacao butter, first considered a byproduct in this process, was mixed with the coco powder and the beloved chocolate bar was born.
On November 8, 2019, 500 years from the date Cortés met Moctezuma in Tenochtitlán, the descendants of Cortés and Moctezuma met at the exact spot in what is now Mexico City (stories and photos are easily found online; one shows Ascanio Pignatelli, a descendant of Cortés, taking a selfie with a descendant of Moctezuma). Despite reading every article I could find on this meeting, alas, I could not discover whether they shared a cup of chocolate. I hope they did as a fitting tribute to this beverage with such a long and fascinating history – the drink of the gods.